- Bill Stephens
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A week ago, the question being thrown around the NHRA was, "Will Hillary be next?"
We didn't have to wait an eternity to get our reply.
On Sunday, Hillary Will ran a steady, consistent race strategy with tuning expertise from Jim Oberhofer, putting her Ken Black Jr.-owned Top Fuel Dragster into the winner's circle at the 20th O'Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, thus scoring her first career national event victory as a pro and adding her name to the recent deluge of female success stories throughout the world of motorsports.
"Words can't describe how I feel right now," said Will, a 28-year-old native of Fortuna, Calif. "I have dreamed of this day for so long, and it's finally here. My KB Racing, LLC team is awesome. They've given me such a great race car all year long, and I can't thank them and my team owners Ken Black and Kenny Black enough for everything that they have done for me and this wonderful opportunity."
Will's final-round win over two-time POWERade champion and No. 1 qualifier Larry Dixon was anything but a shock.
Although Dixon captured the Topeka T/F pole with Hillary beginning eliminations from the No. 11, spot, Will avoided falling victim to terminal tire smoke or egregiously late reaction times as she dusted Doug Herbert, Morgan Lucas, and Cory McClenathan in the first three rounds before capping Dixon in the final, 4.744 seconds at 304.53 mph to 4.960/281.42.
"We knew we had everything to win, and today everything went our way," said the third-year Top Fuel racer, who had advanced to only one previous T/F final round since graduating from Top Alcohol Dragster in 2006. "Thank you to all of our sponsors and everyone who has supported us and stuck with us. Now that we have gotten a win, I'm sure it's just going to make us hungrier for more."
Her victory moved Will into fourth place in the POWERade points -- easily a career-best after finishing 13th in the standings last season and 10th as a rookie in 2006. She is in prime position to secure a top-10 spot between now and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend when the Countdown to the Championship field will be finalized.
"This is definitely the year of the woman racer," beamed Will as she clutched her bronze NHRA national event trophy. "It's an honor for me to be mentioned with all of the great women who have raced and won."
The "year of the woman racer" has definitely been the big story in the Funny Car class in 2008, thanks to the heroics of Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel.
But the ladies had to relinquish the spotlight back to the men on Sunday as John Force picked up his first national event win since Brainerd, Minn., last summer and proved he has come a long way through his daunting recovery period following September's vicious crash in Dallas.
Force picked off his daughter, Ashley, on a holeshot in Round 1, former teammate Gary Densham in the quarterfinals, perennial nemesis Ron Capps in the semis, and current points leader Tim Wilkerson in the final, 4.996/299.66 to Wilkerson's tire-smoking 6.183/152.61.
It gave the 14-time POWERade champion a remarkable nine career victories at Heartland Park Topeka and his 126th overall.
Force's final-round appearance also kept alive the uncanny payoff round success he and his team have amassed in 2008. There has now been a John Force Racing entry in every final this year, except for the AC Delco Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
"This win is huge for me mentally," Force said. "[Crew chief Austin] Coil and I even argued, 'Maybe we should put [Phil] Burkart back in the car,' I said, 'and let the guys win some races and prove the car and maybe that'll give me time to heal more.'
"And Coil held me to a verbal contract we had. He said, 'You always told me, Force, that if we go down, we go down together. If I suck, you're staying with me and if you suck, I'm staying with you.' So he said, 'There ain't nobody else driving this car but you unless you just ain't got the strength to get back in it.'
"You watch these kids work around the clock [on the race car] and you think it just ain't fair. If you can't deliver as a driver, it's not fair to them [to stay in the seat] just 'cause I own it. At the end of the day, winning is what it's all about. I know every driver says that, but when you've won like me, you begin to take it for granted. And then I got slapped [when I crashed] and I don't take it for granted no more. I told Ashley today before I raced her in the first round, 'I'm gonna go after you, baby.'"
His first win of 2008 moved Force to the third spot in the POWERade standings, right behind Ashley.
Ron Krisher made his way into the Pro Stock winner's circle for the first time in almost five years to the day. His last victory was tallied in St. Louis in 2003 and the resilient veteran has been on the horns of a national event victory drought ever since.
On Sunday, Krisher got past another hard-luck racer, Larry Morgan, in the final round with a 6.758/204.70 to 12.144/62.96 win light. It was Krisher's sixth career victory, one of them coming at HPT in 2001.
Morgan has not won a national event since Sonoma 2002 while ringing up seven runner-up finishes in the interim. In the final against Krisher, the cagey, long-time racer attempted to pick up an advantage by deep staging, thus putting out the prestage and stage bulbs as he approached the Christmas Tree, shortening the race track by several inches.
But his strategy never had a chance for success when his car shook the tires, forcing Morgan to shut off early.
"Larry Morgan is a good friend of mine, and I'd like to knock him in the head for double-bulbing me out there," Krisher joked. "We've been friends a long time and he's certainly been a big help to me and my racing career, and I wish him the best."
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
It never really was a question of "if" Hillary Will would win a race in the Top Fuel category. The "when" came Sunday at Topeka, where Will kept the "year of the woman racer" rolling along, writes Bill Stephens.